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With US Open title in sight, the party is on hold for soon-to-be No. 1 Aryna Sabalenka
The reigning Australian Open champion aims to channel New York’s unique energy into one last major run to cap a breakthrough season.
Published Sep 06, 2023
FLASHBACK: Paint with Aryna Sabalenka
NEW YORK—The party is all around Aryna Sabalenka in the Maestro Dobel Tequila Suite. Smack in the middle of a decidedly chic setting, Sabalenka could seemingly flip a black-light switch at any moment, put on some Dua Lipa, and dance the night away.
But this Barbie’s job is tennis: as Novak Djokovic edges into the semifinals, the No. 2 seed picks up a young Taylor Fritz fan off the floor, promising to win her next match for him.
“He’ll make me compete that much harder,” smiles Sabalenka.
Much as Sabalenka’s off-court persona errs towards rom-com starlet, her on-court approach is all action hero, and though she has ostensibly capped a breakthrough season with a long-awaited accession to WTA world No. 1, a second major victory at the US Open is very much in her grasp.
That means the party will have to wait.
“I’m not thinking about the ranking,” she tells me ahead of her quarterfinal against Zheng Qinwen. “Whether you’re No. 1 or No. 2, players will come for you the same way and try their best to chase you. That means there’s no need to change my approach.”
Read on to learn more about Sabalenka’s relationship with the New York crowd, her newly-honed bartending skills, and which Broadway show she’s dying to see:
How did this partnership between you and Dobel Tequila come about?
SABALENKA: I was introduced to the brand in Indian Wells. I really liked the connection we had with the team. I felt a really strong connection with them and felt like this is the perfect brand to work with.
Has tequila always been your drink of choice?
SABALENKA: I would say that I prefer to go for a couple of good tequila shots. I would say that Maestro Dobel is the perfect one for that.
Given how stressful life on tour can be, what does it mean for you to be able to unwind in more casual settings, maybe with a shot or two?
SABALENKA: In the days after I’ve finished a tournament, you definitely need that time to relax. Of course, that’s the perfect time to go for dinner and either finish with a drink or have some with dinner. That can create such a fun, amazing atmosphere. I think it’s really important to have that good balance where you’re professional, working hard, but also where you can have those days where you completely forget about the tennis life, switch off, and do something to chill and enjoy.
You’ve gotten to bartend a bit at some of these events with Dobel; is this the first time you’ve learned how to mix a drink?
SABALENKA: To be honest, it was the first time I’d ever done something like this. But now, every time I’m at a party, I’m telling people, ‘I’m a master of making margaritas, so if you like some, I can make them for you.’ The Paloma is definitely my favorite, with the grapefruit. I also like the original flavor with lime.
Do you pair food with tequila or is it something you prefer straight up?
SABALENKA: I save tequila for after the food so I don’t get really drunk. I try to be smart, so I don’t have it before!
Do you feel any different now that you’re about to be world No. 1?
SABALENKA: Right now, it’s not something that’s always in my head. It is how it is, and it’s great; it’s one more achievement in my career, and I’m happy with that. But I have things to focus on here in New York. I’m just keeping my focus on matches.
When you look back on the time you spent preparing for this season, how much did the work you did at the time translate into what you’ve been able to accomplish in 2023?
SABALENKA: We did a lot of work in the pre-season, and we felt like we were building towards something big. At the same time, you never know with sports. You cannot expect something huge just because you worked hard. Everyone is working!
But as soon as I started playing, we felt like, yeah, we were moving in the right direction when I won the first title and then I won the Australian Open. It gave me so much belief and motivated all of us to work even harder. We just want to keep building.
For all of your success, you’ve also been able to bounce back from some disappointing matches, as well. What kind of mental work have you been doing to keep coming back strong every week?
SABALENKA: I think back to last year, when I was dealing so much with my serve. I realized at that time that everything happens for a reason. You just have to wait, be patient, and work towards your dream. One day, you’ll be able to understand why things were happening to you in the moment. That’s why, even after tough losses, I have a mentality where I don’t see them as disappointments as much as opportunities to learn and grow. It really is a process where I believe the tough matches I have now will be what help me win in the future.
I just have to keep working, keep pushing, and keep doing my best.
I think social media, and also my episode on the Netflix show, Break Point, has really helped fans get a better understanding of who I am as a person. And then, with age, I’ve also become more relaxed. I’m not afraid to show my personality. As I’ve matured, fans have gotten a better sense of me, they’ve seen my matches. I’m trying to show myself on social media so people know who I really am, and feel that connection with me. Aryna Sabalenka
When you’re on the tennis court, do you feel like you’re more of a competitor or a performer?
SABALENKA: I’m definitely a little bit of both, maybe more competitor.
You’re having another great run at the US Open. What do you think the New York crowd brings that may be different than what you get at other Grand Slam tournaments?
SABALENKA: They bring so much energy. They’re super loud and you can feel just how much they love sports and tennis. You can really feel their support. Every time I play in this kind of atmosphere, I get the goosebumps. It’s just amazing, you know? It makes it special.
Do you feel like there was a moment in your times coming to the Open that you can feel the crowd embrace you?
SABALENKA: I think last year, in the semifinals against Iga Swiatek. I got a lot of support in that match, even more than her! When I came back this year, I felt that support again, so I think that was a big turning point where now they really enjoy watching me and want me to do well.
Did it take fans a while to understand all sides of you?
SABALENKA: I think social media, and also my episode on the Netflix show, Break Point, has really helped fans get a better understanding of who I am as a person. And then, with age, I’ve also become more relaxed. I’m not afraid to show my personality. As I’ve matured, fans have gotten a better sense of me, they’ve seen my matches. I’m trying to show myself on social media so people know who I really am, and feel that connection with me.
What was it like getting to see your episode of Break Point?
SABALENKA: I just wanted to show myself to the people. I know who I am, and I’m just so happy I had this opportunity to share my life, my experiences with people.
Are there any perks or positives to being No. 1 that you might be looking forward to?
SABALENKA: Ultimately, how important is the ranking? It won’t get me any privileges than being No. 2. My position will be at the top of the draw instead of the bottom, but that’s the only thing.
Whether you’re No. 1 or No. 2, players will come for you the same way and try their best to chase you. That means there’s no need to change my approach. I just need to keep playing my best to doing my best.
What is something you’re looking forward to doing in New York City that you haven’t gotten to do yet?
SABALENKA: I’m dying to see a Broadway show. I’ve never been to one yet, but I’ve heard it’s an amazing experience.
I was supposed to see MJ, the Michael Jackson musical. But I’ve been so busy, I couldn’t make it last week! I had to cancel it, but I’m definitely going to see it before I go!